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DNJ Column 11/17/19

I found Jesus the other day. I know that sounds weird coming from a pastor but let me explain. It wasn’t that I found him for the first time, for that was more a matter of being found, it almost felt like being singled out. No, this was more akin to the regular experience of many Christians who run across Jesus all the time.

         

 I remember the cover of the Bob Dylan album, “Slow Train Coming.” The first time I looked at it, it occurred to me that the pickax in the hands of the railroad worker pictured also looked like a cross. And then I begin seeing crosses as I drove down the highway, a whole slew of crosses, holding up the power lines alongside the road. They just zip past you, one after the other, they just keep coming, like the call of God on each soul.

          

My experience the other day was like coming across somebody when you don’t expect them. I don’t know if young men “fall in love” anymore like we did in the sixties, but it’s kind of like that. When you’re a certain age, say between 12 and 20, you see a girl, and kapow! you’re just a goner. And then, at school, wherever you are, you seem to see her everywhere, whereas before you’d never noticed.

          

I never expected to run across Jesus in a dusty old tent in the desert, but that’s what happened. The tent itself was in the book of Exodus in the Bible. If you know anything about Exodus, you probably know that’s where Mt. Sinai is found, as well as the Ten Commandments, the Burning Bush, the Baby in the Bulrushes, Pharaoh, the Ten Plagues, Passover, etc.

          

But in addition to those moments of high drama that are memorialized for many in Charlton Heston’s movie there are long passages in Exodus with detailed (excruciatingly detailed) instructions for how to construct the Tabernacle, the tent where the Ark of the Covenant (instructions for that, too) is to be kept, as well as the Altar, and the Table for the shewbread, and the bronze Laver for washing and the Altar for burning incense, on and on.

          

“You shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of acacia wood shall you make it.  A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth; it shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height; its horns shall be of one piece with it. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides round about and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold round about. And two golden rings shall you make for it; under its molding on two opposite sides of it shall you make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it.  You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold.”

          

See what I mean? You read this kind of stuff and you start wondering. I mean I can see that God had very detailed plans for how the ancient Israelites were to worship Him, but I’m not the object of these instructions. I’m not called to build a Tabernacle.

          

But we kept reading and kept reading, and finally noticed something. They were told how to build that Altar of Incense, they were told what to make the Oil of Anointing with, which was to be used to anoint (consecrate) all the furniture and utensils in the Tabernacle, and they were told how to make the Incense, what ingredients to use.

          

And as you read along, you see Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Those three stood out. And they were told not to use the Incense or Oil of Anointing for any everyday use, and only the priests of the Tabernacle were to handle the furniture and utensils covered with Gold.

          

And that’s when I finally figured out who we were talking about.

DNJ Column 11/10/19

Learning that Foucault’s Pendulum in the Smithsonian was dismantled 20 years ago got me to thinking about regular pendulums like you might see in a grandfather clock, back and forth. And what I really find amazing is the way cultural/religious/political changes seem to be governed, you’d almost have to say, by the law of the pendulum. It seems like we always go too far.

What I’ve been reading and learning about has to do with changes instituted (they don’t just happen) in our society after WWII. They have lot to do with our natural and laudable reaction against the scourges of the first half of the 20th century: communism and fascism.

In the succeeding generations after 1945 we all wanted to run as far and fast away as possible from those two monsters. And what I’m learning is that it’s possible to go overboard in just about any form of societal change.

It’s like 19th century Protestants in America did not want candles on the Lord’s Table because Catholics had candles. Therefore. I worked with a church musician in the 80s who always said, ironically, “If it’s worth doing, Mr. Odom, it’s worth overdoing.” I think we’ve been overdoing it, when it comes to openness and a retreat from common loves and the devotions that bind a society together. For it is evident we are coming undone, unglued, for we are losing a love of the commonalty, the “res publica,” around which we should be at least somewhat united.

I’ve been influenced in my recent thinking about his by RR Reno, who has just come out with a book entitled: “Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism and the Future of the West.” Reno begins by limning the changes prescribed by Karl Popper (“The Open Society and Its Enemies”) and Friedrich Hayek (“The Road to Serfdom”). Popper, teacher and mentor of George Soros, was a man of the left, and Hayek, mentor of Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, a man of the right. But they were friends and saw themselves as allies against the closing down of the world they had left behind, both being born and raised in Austria, both struggling with fascism and communism and the controls they both wanted to impose on the economic and social lives of people and nations.

The Amazon.com description of Reno’s book describes his understanding of the postwar project, left and right, this way: “By liberating ourselves from the old attachments to nation, clan, and religion that had fueled centuries of violence, we could build a prosperous world without borders, freed from dogmas and managed by experts. But the populism and nationalism that are upending politics in America and Europe are a sign that after three generations, the postwar consensus is breaking down. With compelling insight, R. R. Reno argues that we are witnessing the return of the “strong gods”—the powerful loyalties that bind men to their homeland and to one another.”

Reno posits the idea that it is our loves that bind us together. Love for what we value, love for what we have in common. An absolute openness, whether socially or economically, is centrifugal, and eventually tears people apart in a variety of directions. When the new god of “diversity” cannot be questioned, when “inclusiveness” takes precedence over any and all other values, it become difficult if not impossible to love a common goal, an end that all might work toward. Traditional societies were bound together by common religious values, which is difficult in a nation of not just religious freedom, but one where the clerisy restricts the practice of traditional religious values if they contradict the open values of diversity and inclusiveness.

Augustine describes a “people” as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” What do we hold in common?

DNJ Column 11/3/19

In the preface to his translation of the Bible into German, Martin Luther says “The Scriptures of the Old Testament are not to be despised but diligently read. Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies….Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.”

The manger in which Christ lies. Martin Luther is reading the gospel of Luke “figurally,” using the figure, the picture, of the manger, to understand another part of the scriptures, the Old Testament. The Old Testament, he says, is Christ’s manger. This is metaphorical speech. Poetic speech. It’s the only way to make sense of a passage in John 5, in which Jesus says to his interlocutors, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.”  All four gospels do this in a variety of ways.

A pre-figuration is not limited to the idea that the coming of Christ was “prophesied” or predicted. Erich Auerbach said “Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events, things or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves and fulfils the first. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life, and the comprehension of their interdependence is a spiritual act.”

Which is another way of saying that the figure of Jesus as the Rock on which the wise man builds his house in Matthew 7, the Sermon on the Mount, stands on its own and has its own validity, but that figure of the rock expands in profundity and meaning when we see its connections to the rock from which the water gushed forth in the desert when Moses struck the rock with his staff in the book of Numbers 20.

Or when we connect that rock in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, to the “rock” of Mt. Sinai, where the Lord spoke his covenant to his chosen people. Or when we connect that rock to “the stone that was rejected, which has become the chief cornerstone,” from Psalm 118, quoted 6 times in the New Testament. A figural reading expands our vison and understanding.

My assertion is this: in order to read the Old Testament profitably and correctly we must read it through the eyes of the four gospels and the other books of the New Testament. For why is the Old Testament a part of our “Bible” at all? Because it was Jesus’ Bible. He preached from the Old Testament, he quoted the Old Testament, he lived the Old Testament, before it was “Old!” When it was just, the “scriptures,” “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms,” to quote Jesus himself in Luke 24.

The problem is that the general lack of familiarity with the Old Testament within the church, and an almost complete ignorance of the Old Testament outside the church (and the synagogue of course), has left us virtually unaware of the deeply Jewish character of the Gospels, and the way the Gospels constantly allude to Old Testament texts, quote them and echo them.

A seminary professor I know had a student say this to him in class one day at Duke: “Judaism was a harsh religion that taught people to fear God’s judgment, but Jesus came to teach us to love God with all our heart, soul and strength.”

Now what’s so sad and funny about that is this is a young person training to a pastor, a religious guide to others. But even more ironic, to make his anti-Jewish point, the student unwittingly quotes the Old Testament, the law of  Moses: Deuteronomy 6:5, “ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Which may be familiar to you because Jesus said it. But it was “the first and greatest commandment” that every Jew knew by heart.

November Caller Article 

Strange things happen in the world all the time, about which we know little or nothing, and often neither the cause nor the effect. In 1858 George MacDonald, a Scottish preacher rejected by his congregation, wrote a novel, a strange novel, and named it “Phantastes.” Oddly enough, in 1914, Jack Lewis saw it on a sale rack at a train station and fearing the boredom of a train journey with nothing to read, bought it. Thirty years later, in writing an introduction to two of MacDonald’s novels (Lilith being the other), he said: “"That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes."

In his own autobiography, Lewis said, “Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, “Phantastes, a Faerie Romance,” by George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names Saxon and sweet as a nut—‘Bookham, Effingham, Horsley train.’ That evening I began to read my new book. The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.”

        

Jack Lewis, is, of course, C.S. Lewis, beloved author of the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity and many other works, and premier apologist for the Christian faith of the 20th century. Many don’t know that in his day job, as professor at Oxford and later Cambridge University, he was considered a foremost scholar of Medieval  Literature, later tapped to write the medieval volume of the Oxford History of English Literature (which consumed so much of his time, he would say to his friends “I have to get back to work on O- HEL!”) Lewis’ writings and winsome witness to his faith in Christ (from the 1940s forward) influenced and changed countless lives and continues to do so.

        

Lewis was a teenager when he stumbled on Phantastes, had been raised in the Anglican church of Belfast, but had been an atheist for years, partly as a result of his mother’s early death, and his boyhood tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick. MacDonald was the beginning of his oh so slow return to faith.

        

Would it have happened without Lewis reading MacDonald’s book? Would the many who have come to faith in Christ through the books of Lewis be non-believers without that witness?

        

Reggie, the bookstall supplier for the station was sick that day in 1914, and he got word by his brother-in-law, who didn’t like him very much, but did it anyway, to Alf, his co-worker, that he needed help, and that the bookstalls had to be supplied that day for the stations he covered or he’d be in trouble with the boss. Alf, who could hardly read himself, who’d rather have five pints than just one, Alf, who could never turn down a request for a favor, who never met a man he didn’t like, who especially admired Reggie who was an educated van driver; Alf stepped into the breach. Alf got George’s book on the rack so Jack could see it, buy it, and well, you know the rest.

        

Would MacDonald have written the novel (the first of many) if his congregation had not driven him out of their pulpit for what they considered heresy? Who introduced me to Lewis when I was only 16? I cannot remember. But we know it’s not only Ideas that Have Consequences, as Richard Weaver’s famous book asserts, but deeds as well. Actions, choices, decisions.

        

When you hear that inner voice urge you to step up: listen.

DNJ Column 10/27/19

Strange things happen in the world all the time, about which we know little or nothing, and often neither the cause nor the effect. In 1858 George MacDonald, a Scottish preacher rejected by his congregation, wrote a novel, a strange novel, and named it “Phantastes.” Oddly enough, in 1914, Jack Lewis saw it on a sale rack at a train station and fearing the boredom of a train journey with nothing to read, bought it. Thirty years later, in writing an introduction to two of MacDonald’s novels (Lilith being the other), he said: “"That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes."

        

 In his own autobiography, Lewis said, “Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, “Phantastes, a Faerie Romance,” by George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names Saxon and sweet as a nut—‘Bookham, Effingham, Horsley train.’ That evening I began to read my new book. The woodland journeyings in that story, the ghostly enemies, the ladies both good and evil, were close enough to my habitual imagery to lure me on without the perception of a change. It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.”

        

 Jack Lewis, is, of course, C.S. Lewis, beloved author of the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity and many other works, and premier apologist for the Christian faith of the 20th century. Many don’t know that in his day job, as professor at Oxford and later Cambridge University, he was considered a foremost scholar of Medieval Literature, later tapped to write the medieval volume of the Oxford History of English Literature (which consumed so much of his time, he would say to his friends “I have to get back to work on O- HEL!)” Lewis’ writings and winsome witness to his faith in Christ (from the 1940s forward) influenced and changed countless lives and continues to do so.

         

Lewis was a teenager when he stumbled on Phantastes, had been raised in the Anglican church of Belfast, but had been an atheist for years, partly as a result of his mother’s early death, and his boyhood tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick. MacDonald was the beginning of his oh so slow return to faith.

         

Would it have happened without Lewis reading MacDonald’s book? Would the many who have come to faith in Christ through the books of Lewis be non-believers without that witness?

         

Reggie, the bookstall supplier for the station was sick that day in 1914, and he got word by his brother-in-law, who didn’t like him very much, but did it anyway, to Alf, his co-worker, that he needed help, and that the bookstalls had to be supplied that day for the stations he covered or he’d be in trouble with the boss. Alf, who could hardly read himself, who’d rather have five pints than just one, Alf, who could never turn down a request for a favor, who never met a man he didn’t like, who especially admired Reggie who was an educated van driver; Alf stepped into the breach. Alf got George’s book on the rack so Jack could see it, buy it, and well, you know the rest.

         

Would MacDonald have written the novel (the first of many) if his congregation had not driven him out of their pulpit for what they considered heresy? Who introduced me to Lewis when I was only 16? I cannot remember. But we know it’s not only Ideas that Have Consequences, as Richard Weaver’s famous book asserts, but deeds as well. Actions, choices, decisions.

         

When you hear that inner voice urge you to step up: listen.